FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, one of the highest-ranking officers ever to face a court-martial, pleaded guilty at the start of his trial Thursday morning to several charges, including an illicit affair with a female captain, possessing pornography, impeding an investigation and pressuring other female officers to send him nude photos of themselves.
The general pleaded not guilty to the most serious charges against him. They include twice forcing the captain to perform oral sex, groping her, committing sodomy, engaging in public sex and threatening to kill the captain and her family if she revealed their three-year affair.
The offenses to which Sinclair has pleaded guilty normally result in fines and retirement at a reduced rank, according to the general’s defense team. It is up to the military judge presiding over the court-martial, Col. James L. Pohl, to accept the pleas.
“Gen. Sinclair has consistently admitted his shortcomings and taken responsibility for them,’’ Sinclair’s lead attorney, Richard Scheff, said in a statement Wednesday night. "We advised him to delay pleading to some of these lesser charges for tactical reasons."
Sinclair, 51, faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges. He was relieved of duty as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the accuser came forward in 2012.
The general, who is married with two sons, has previously admitted to the affair but has insisted that it was consensual throughout. His lawyers have accused the captain, who was 29 when the affair began, of falsely accusing Sinclair of sexually assaulting her when she tried to break off their affair. The defense says she accused Sinclair in order to escape punishment for adultery, a serious offense in the military.
Opening statements are expected Thursday in a case that has attracted national attention at a time of intense public and political scrutiny of the military’s handling of sexual assaults. Congress is debating whether to strip commanders of authority to bring sexual assault charges against those in their command and to instead have independent prosecutors make those decisions. [Updated, 5:44 p.m. March 5: A vote could come in the Senate as early as Thursday.]
Scheff said Sinclair would plead guilty to conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for pressuring a female captain, a female major and a civilian woman to send him nude photos of themselves. He will plead guilty to engaging in inappropriate relationships with the three women, as well as attempting to engage in an improper relationship with a female lieutenant, according to Scheff.
The defense said Sinclair would admit that he attempted to impede an investigation by deleting nude photos of one of the women from his computer and deleting an email account used to communicate with some of the women.
The general will also plead guilty to having sex with the accuser in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Texas, Arizona and at Ft. Bragg, where Sinclair is still on active duty pending the outcome of the court-martial. The accuser remains on active duty in Arizona.
In a statement, Scheff said the guilty pleas would deprive prosecutors of the ability to "distract us with salacious details about acts that aren’t even criminal in the civilian world." He accused prosecutors of putting "a fancy wrapper" around "pathetically weak assault charges." The anticipated guilty pleas "tore the wrapper off," Scheff said.
He said of prosecutors: "All they’re left with is a crime that never happened, a witness who committed perjury, and a pile of text messages and journal entries that disprove their claim. We wish them lots of luck, because they’re going to need it.”
The defense contends that the accuser’s credibility has been badly damaged by her alleged perjury while testifying in court in January about how she found and handled a cellphone containing messages from Sinclair. Prosecutors have denied in court that the accuser lied on the stand or that her credibility had been compromised.
Scheff also criticized prosecutors for eliciting testimony Wednesday that the former lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. William Helixon, apparently suffered an emotional breakdown the day before he quit the case in February. The defense said Helixon had concluded that the accuser had lied and that Sinclair was not guilty of sexual assault, but his recommendations to drop the most serious charges were rebuffed by the Army because of "unlawful command influence."
"Because Lt. Col. Helixon tried to do the right thing, the Army threw him under the bus,’’ Scheff said. "Now the Army is out of scapegoats, out of diversions, and out of time.”
On Tuesday, the judge denied a defense motion to drop all charges.
There was no comment Wednesday night from military prosecutors, who under Army regulations generally do not comment outside of the courtroom.
Earlier Wednesday, Pohl refused to allow prosecutors to show pornographic images during opening statements – an issue that could become moot if Sinclair’s guilty pleas are accepted. Prosecutors said investigators recovered 8,500 pornographic photos and 600 sexually explicit videos on "electronic devices," presumably laptops, in Sinclair’s possession.
[Updated, 5:44 p.m. March 5: The defense says Sinclair did not view all those images, but that the Internet pornography sites accessed contain dozens of cached images that appear in a user's browsing history but were not necessarily viewed.]
Pohl had left open the possibility that the images could be introduced later in the court-martial. But Sinclair's guilty plea to pornography charges makes that unlikely.
The judge also ruled that prosecutors may not use Sinclair’s alleged viewing of pornography as evidence that he intended to commit certain sex acts depicted in the images, including forcible oral sex.
[Updated 9:24 a.m. March 6: The plea was entered Thursday morning.]